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Jun 17, 2014 11:34 AM EDT

Domestic Violence, Trauma May Leave Genetic Imprint On Children


Family violence may leave a genetic imprint on children, according to a recent study.

Researchers from Tulane University School of Medicine found that children in homes affected by domestic violence, suicide or the incarceration of a family member have significantly shorter telomeres, which is a cellular marker of aging, than those in stable households.

Telomeres are the caps at the end of chromosomes that keep them from shrinking when cells replicate. Shorter telomeres are linked to higher risks for heart disease, obesity, cognitive decline, diabetes, mental illness and poor health outcomes in adulthood. 

"Family-level stressors, such as witnessing a family member get hurt, created an environment that affected the DNA within the cells of the children," Dr. Stacy Drury, lead author of the study and director of the Behavioral and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Laboratory at Tulane University, said in a statement. "The greater the number of exposures these kids had in life, the shorter their telomeres were -- and this was after controlling for many other factors, including socioeconomic status, maternal education, parental age and the child's age."

For the study, researchers took genetic samples from 80 children ages 5 to 15 in New Orleans and interviewed parents about their home environments and exposures to adverse life events.

They found that gender moderated the impact of family instability. Traumatic family events were more detrimental to young girls as they were more likely to have shortened telomeres.

There was also a surprising protective effect for boys: mothers who had achieved a higher level of education had a positive association with telomere length, but only in boys under 10.

Researchers said the study suggests that the home environment is an important intervention target to reduce "the biological impacts of adversity in the lives of young children."

The findings were recently published in the journal Pediatrics

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